STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

How Michigan is stopping adults from going back to college

Brock Boland

We know that if you want to make a livable wage in Michigan, you’ll need a college degree -- no matter what your age.

But the Michigan League for Public Policy reported(and PBS News Hour picked it up) Michigan is just one of five states that doesn’t offer financial assistance for older students. This is true even though our state has the sixth-highest university tuition for four-year public universities in the country.  

After the Great Recession, we all learned the hard way that you can no longer count on graduating high school and having one career for the rest of your life. Oftentimes, the only jobs available require training. Many families had to start over completely, and that meant going back to school.

Here’s what we do know about going to college at any age:

  • A high school diploma doesn’t get you very far. High school graduates only make about half what folks who graduate college do.

  • There are tons of reasons kids don’t go straight to college after high school: the birth of a child, a job offer too good to refuse, or being unable to afford tuition, just to name a few.

  • College keeps getting more expensive. Community college tuition has risen 31% since 2005. University tuition has increased even more and is 49% higher than it was 10 years ago.

  • As tuition gets higher, so does students’ financial need. The majority of state aid programs (not loans) that are available often discriminate against older students by requiring they attend college full-time, which for most schools means taking at least 12 credits each semester. For students who are balancing a job, family responsibilities, and taking classes, even half-time status just isn’t possible.

  • Scholarship funding has been cut A LOT in recent years. The only way most students are able to go to college is through student loans.

  • Loans aren’t an option for all students. If you graduated from high school 10 years ago or more, you’re not eligible for financial aid from the state of Michigan. 

Michigan hasn’t always made it so hard for older students to go back to college. There were programs that offered help to adult learners, but they were eliminated in 2010. Right now, there aren’t any specific state financial aid programs to help students who graduated 10 years ago or more pay for college.

State loan restrictions may be an effort to encourage kids to go straight to college after high school, but they’re actually discouraging some older students from going at all. Limited financial resources for adult learners harm low-income families most, even though odds are already stacked against these learners.

Restrictions on older adults hurt their kids, too. Having parents who attend college is one of the biggest indicators of whether their children will as well. My colleague Jennifer Guerra has already shown how difficult it is to be a first-generation student.

The one place adult learners in Michigan may catch a break is through federal financial aid, but that also comes with limitations. Federal aid recipients are required to “make satisfactory academic progress” in order to keep receiving aid. What that progress means looks completely different at every college or university.  

It could be keeping your GPA up to a university standard or getting a certain number of credits each year.

Richard Yates shared on Michigan Radio’s Facebook page that he was denied federal student loans because he had attempted over 90 credits. Unfortunately, he says he needed only five more classes to get his two-year degree.

Stories like Richard’s and this report begs the question of whether there is a mismatch between policies like these and what we know it will take for Michigan families to get ahead. 

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